Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer
This team’s in it for the long haul
There’s no such thing as a “home game” for Furniture Row Racing.
While almost every team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup game is located within an hour of Charlotte, Furniture Row Racing is based 1,600 miles west in Denver, Colo. The closest thing it has to a backyard race is a 1,200-mile round trip to Kansas City, Kan.
The Mile-High City, you see, is Barney Visser’s hometown. Denver is the headquarters for his five furniture-related businesses — 330 stores in 31 states.
But having Denver as a home base means his race team’s three truck drivers will collectively trek nearly 100,000 miles this year for 38 events. It’s the equivalent of four trips around the globe, and 40,000 miles more than Charlotte-area teams must cover.
“NASCAR racing is a strong marketing tool,” said team manager Joe Garone, a former Cup crew chief and ex-director of NASCAR’s Research & Development Center.
“For Barney, it made sense to get involved. When you’re a national company and you need a national advertising campaign, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Calling Denver home offers a unique challenge, but nothing insurmountable.
For instance, Furniture Row Racing leases engines from Hendrick Motorsports. That may not sound like a towering hurdle, but because engines have to be installed before racecars leave the shop, the Denver team must pick up its powerplants five to seven days ahead of the competition in North Carolina.
“We’ve got a good system that makes it go easy,” said Regan Smith, the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolets and the 20th starter in today’s Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. “Barney’s got over-the-road trucks that are constantly on the road to his stores. They schedule them so that they’re in Charlotte to pick up the engines at Hendrick, then they’re trucked to a central location, where another truck picks up that crate on its way back to Denver.
“That’s the toughest part of being out here — and we’ve got that covered.”
Mark McArdle, hired in January as the team’s managing director of competition, added, “When you race as often as we do, it inevitably comes down to planning. We just have to do a little bit better job of it than everybody else.”
When Visser decided to venture into big-time NASCAR racing in 2005 for a couple of events, it made sense to do so out of Denver, where he could keep an eye on his investment.
“We had absolutely nothing but an empty building,” said Garone, a native of Colorado. “We had to start from dead scratch with cars and people.”
The team was launched with a few locals turning the wrenches, but Garone knew he would also have to eventually import personnel from Charlotte to be more competitive.
Of late, that hasn’t been as daunting a task. The nation’s economic downturn caught many teams in a financial chokehold. Many of them survived by sacking employees, but others simply shut down.
McArdle was among the legions affected when Richard Petty Motorsports merged with another team. Ryan Coniam, an engineer and former sprint car driver, was ready for a change of scenery, and veteran car chief Pete Rondeau was ripe for a move. Garone hired all three, and Coniam was promoted to crew chief almost overnight when his predecessor chose to return to the Charlotte area.
“I love it in Denver,” Coniam said. “I live right downtown and can walk from my house to the (Colorado Avalanche hockey) games. I’m originally from Toronto, and the culture of the city seems more like a Canadian city to me, more like home. Avs games, Broncos games, and in 45 minutes I can be in the mountains.”
The toughest part of convincing people to move two time zones away, Garone said, is first convincing them to give Denver a look. After that, he said, it’s a relatively easy sell.
“They see that we have a full-blown Cup team with all the same stuff they have in Charlotte,” Garone said. “Then they see Colorado and the things that are different, and the quality of life that’s available if you’re into hunting or fishing or skiing. It kind of hooks them. It makes sense to them: ‘I get to be in another state and still do my craft.’ It’s unique.”
And unlike the Charlotte area, Furniture Row is the only game in town.
“We don’t have a revolving door of people walking in here looking for jobs,” Coniam said. “The guys in the shop are focused on their job, not worrying about guys who’ll come in and take their job for $100 less a week. Our guys can stay on the same page, and that’s an intangible benefit. You can’t even put a value on that.”
By 2008, with 40 races over three part-time seasons under its belt, the team had enough of a foundation to tackle the full slate with driver Joe Nemechek.
But when the American economy went off the cliff, Visser had to cut back across the board, race team included, to survive the fall. Nemechek opted out of a contract that guaranteed a full season behind the wheel, and Smith, the 2008 rookie of the year, was hired.
There was a plus to pulling back, Garone said, in that more time could be spent fine-tuning the cars for competition. By midseason, the downside had gotten an upper hand.
“Not being in NASCAR full-time was hurting us from a marketing perspective, and definitely in performance,” Garone said. “Even the simplest things — the road crew, the relationships within the team — it was like starting all over at every race. If you’re not out there every week, you get rusty and everybody’s not on the same page, even down to communication between the driver and crew chief.
“You’re better prepared, but you’re not in tune.”
Even so, later in the year, a financial rebound convinced Visser, who avoids interviews, to make the commitment to gear up for the full schedule in 2010. Garone has negotiated a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that will include cars and engineering expertise, and he added that FRR’s game plan includes expansion to a two-car operation.
“Initially, as we were building the program, there were a lot of things to overcome, but we’ve worked most of that,” Garone said. “There’s no question in my mind that we can achieve our goals being right where we are.”